Godhra, India, Feb. 27--(AP) A Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu activists as it returned from a religious ceremony Wednesday, killing at least 55 people, officials said. District administrator Jayanti Ravi said there were about 75 passengers in the four coaches of the Sabarmati Express that were set ablaze in Godhra, in the western state of Gujarat. The coaches, she said, had been gutted.

Ravi said 14 children were among the dead, and other officials reported at least 38 were hurt. Smoke was still pouring from the train by late afternoon, as relief workers tried gingerly to remove the charred bodies. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee appealed for national calm, calling on Hindu nationalists not to retaliate. ``We need to protect Indian brotherhood at every cost,'' he said.

India has one of the world's largest Muslim populations - 120 million people among its 1 billion-plus population. In other cities where Muslims and Hindus live close together, police began extra patrols. One witness in Godhra said the attackers numbered more than 2,000; others said 100 Muslims had surrounded the train.

A senior state official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Muslims attacked the train at the station just as it was leaving Godhra, 95 miles southeast of Ahmadabad, the commercial capital of Gujarat. The town of Godhra has a 30 percent Muslim population and a history of frequent clashes between Hindus and Muslims. India's most powerful Hindu nationalist groups are strong in Gujarat and the relatively prosperous state is host to many religious clashes, including those against Christians.

In the state capital, Gandhinagar, Gujarat Home Minister Gordhan Zadaphia told the State Assembly that shoot-on-sight orders had been issued to prevent any rioting from spreading, and most of the town was placed under curfew.

A 17-year-old youth was killed in Godhra when police fired guns and lobbed tear gas to disperse mobs who were looting shops and setting them on fire, officials said. The train was carrying activists belonging to a Hindu nationalist organization trying to build a temple on the site of a disputed mosque in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

The World Hindu Council activists were returning to Gujarat after participating in religious ceremonies at Ayodhya, where Hindu nationalists plan to build a temple at the site of a 16th century Muslim mosque. When the mosque was torn down by Hindus in 1992, it sparked nationwide riots between Hindus and Muslim and 2,000 people were killed.

More than 20,000 people have gathered in Ayodhya, 345 miles east of New Delhi, since the Council announced it would begin constructing the temple by March 15, ignoring court orders banning construction at the site. Officials in Godhra said the mob, enraged by slogans shouted by the Hindu nationalists, attacked the train just after it left the train station. Initially they pelted the train with stones and later set it on fire, said Gordhan Zadaphia, the state home minister.

Vajpayee on Wednesday called on the World Hindu Council to drop its demands to build a temple. He and Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, a Hindu nationalist and one of three Cabinet ministers accused of inciting the crowds that razed the ancient mosque in 1992, also appealed for calm.

The part of the train that was not affected detached at Godhra and went on to Vadodara, 60 miles south. There, a crowd of Hindu nationalists began jeering and beating up Muslims as they got off the train. One man was stabbed to death, according to hospital officials, and several others were injured when they were beaten with sticks.

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